A long way from home in Cairo, Khaled Diab sets out to discover how Ramadan is observed on the streets of Brussels.
My first Ramadan away from Egypt in over a decade crept up on me and almost caught me by surprise as Brussels carried on with business as usual. It made me aware that Ramadan was more than simply a month of fasting – a surprising admission for a lapsed Muslim who does not put much stock in ritual.
“What I miss is the atmosphere – the Ramadan spirit. You can't really feel it here,” said Jamal, a Moroccan who works at the local supermarket, echoing my thoughts on the first day as his cash register pinged my shopping and the woman behind me in the queue tapped her feet impatiently.
Fasting and austerity by day, feasting and revelling in the cafes and specially erected tents by night, with tedious tasks such as sleep and work taking a back seat. That is how Ramadan began in Cairo this week and how it will continue for a month.
Ramadan, at its core, is simply an exercise in discipline, where Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, sex, or any other worldly pleasure from dawn to dusk – a relatively easy matter in these winter months, but infinitely more complex when the holy month, due to the shifting of the lunar calendar, falls in summer.
Through the exercise of such austerity and a heightened spirituality, Muslims are supposed to become humbler and more in tune with the plight of others. Ramadan can inspire people to commit incredible acts of selflessness and charity, but it can make others more irritable, impolite and aggressive as their hunger pangs set in. In addition to the religious aspect, Ramadan has evolved, over the centuries, a rich social dimension that encompasses family, friends, music, literature, cuisine, hang outs and television at its peripheries.
To the uninitiated in Brussels, like myself, Ramadan can seem to be far removed from the city's life cycle. While it doesn't bring about the upheavals to people's daily routines that it does in Cairo, or other Muslim cities, turning the rhythm of life on its head, a second look will reveal a subtle change of beat in certain quarters.
Brussels has a sizeable Moroccan minority, many of whom are concentrated around the North and the South stations, a stone's throw from where I live. Sometimes I'm struck by how eerily familiar some roads seem to be, with their halal (Islamic kosher) butchers, signs in Arabic, Middle Eastern tea-houses and restaurants. Even the animated banter of teenage boys hugging street corners gives the illusion of Cairo, except, that is, when they speak their almost unintelligible, to my ears, hybrid of the Moroccan dialect and French.
Ironically, the first port of call for my partner and I was Rue de Brabant, more usually associated with the red light district just round the corner. We spent the afternoon milling through the crowded street full of Ramadan shoppers. We bought Moroccan sweets and the ingredients to make the Egyptian dish, koshari, as the restaurants frantically prepared food for iftar (the breaking of the fast at sunset). For good measure, we picked up some Arabic music: the master oud player and sentimental crooner, the Syrian Farid El-Atrash, as well as the lighter Egyptian singing idol, Abdel-Haleem Hafez.
“For strangers, it can be difficult to know where to look for Ramadan in Brussels, but it's definitely there,” reflects Buqqar, a middle-aged Moroccan, as he sips on his mint-tea amid a group of friends in their local Maqha (an Arab tea-house) in the evening.
I felt compelled to agree. I had gone out that evening in search of the Ramadan spirit, instead I was detained by an army of teen spirits. As I walked along the Anspach, a student street party emerged noisily from a side street. Hundreds of revelling students were dancing drunkenly, trailing the floats that were dispensing free booze – not quite the spirit I had in mind, although, on another occasion, I would have happily jumped in and joined the party.
“Ramadan is really no different here than it is in Morocco,” Baqqar continues. I try to make the same leap.
“Now it's much better than it was when I came here 30 years ago. There are mosques everywhere, Moroccan shops and restaurants. It's just like being home,” his friend Rambok, another Moroccan, notes.
“Wherever you go Ramadan is Ramadan. The religious experience is one, the fasting is one, the food is one,” agrees Said, an Algerian. “It's just the social side that differs and, sometimes, you can pine for your ancestry,” he adds.
“Ramadan is about worship and getting closer to God and that doesn't require a particular location – you can do it anywhere,” Said reflects. But what about the social aspect he mentioned, doesn't that count?
“Ramadan means family to me. Having big family get-togethers at iftar makes it special. You can't really have that here,” volunteers Melok, another Moroccan. “People back home are keener about Ramadan than here. You can feel it more there. I often feel like spending Ramadan in Morocco. I go back whenever I can,” he adds.
“Arabs here have taken on some European values, like individuality, living alone and operating separately. That means there isn't the same amount of gelling in Ramadan,” Said notes.
“At iftar, I miss eating with my family. But, at iftar time, I'm on the road. You can't live the full Ramadan experience here because normal life doesn't stop,” laments Nasser, a Tunisian driver.
In Cairo, for instance, life grinds to a halt come dusk. Then the calls of the muezzins erupt from the minarets of a dozen local mosques and merge together to form an ethereal hum. They replace the climactic final movement of the symphony of horns that died out minutes earlier in the gridlocked streets full of frustrated and hungry commuters making a mad dash home.
Once the final call to prayer fades from Cairo's minarets into blissful silence, the bustling home to nearly 20 million people turns into a ghost town, an island of solitude, with hardly a soul in the streets, and shops and businesses firmly shuttered. Millions of families huddle round their dining tables, thousands more sit at pavement-side Tables of the Merciful, where the rich have laid out free banquets for the poor and passers by.
Warming to the topic at hand and the web of issues it throws up, the group of friends from countries that are not always on the friendliest terms, engage in that age-old maqha traditionof talking over steaming pots of herbal infusions until, I thought, dawn would bring the proceedings to an end.
I said my goodbyes and left them to explore the intricacies of the position of Muslims in Europe, their improving status, the young, many of whom had never seen their home or felt equally out of place there, and their growing pride with their culture and religion and, of course, the old favourite, the mind-boggling complexities of Middle Eastern politics.
Ramadan nights in Antwerp
If you wish to acquaint yourself with the cultural side of Ramadan and learn more about the Moroccan community in Belgium, why not hop down to Antwerp and attend one of the Ramadan Nights organised by the Flemish Moroccan Federation throughout the holy month.
Everyone is welcome to join the festivities after the sun goes down, says the Federation's cultural attache, Mohamed Ekoubaan, who saw the successful launch of the month-long programme, for the third year running, on Sunday 18 November with an iftar, which was attended by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to see in the first weekend of Ramadan.
“Our Ramadan nights are targeted at everyone, but primarily we focus on Arab and Islamic cultural events to give Moroccans, who are the biggest Muslim immigrant community here, and other Muslims, a feel of the culture associated with Ramadan,” Ekoubaan said. “We also aim to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims to promote understanding,” he added.
The Federation, which was founded in 1993, organises events and seminars all year around, Ekoubaan noted. Recent themes included the place of Muslims in Europe following the terrorist attacks in the United State on September 11.
The Federation is an independent NGO that was recognised by the Flemish government in 1995 and which it now subsidises.
Ramadan for beginners
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. During Ramadan, able-bodied Muslims must fast from the crack of dawn until sunset. Fasting does not just mean going without food and water. A fasting Muslim must refrain from sex, smoking and all other forms of physical and mental temptation. They must also strive to be more patient, generous and less vengeful towards others by giving more.
Islam stresses the sacredness of work and that fasting should not interfere with one's work. However, many devout Muslims choose to pray more in the evenings and complete the entire Quran by the end of the month. There is an optional evening prayer during Ramadan, in addition to the five compulsory ones, known as Tarawih. Well-to-do Muslims are also called on to feed the poor by laying on Tables of Mercy and making donations.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Hijra calendar. We are now in year 1422 Hijra. The Hijra calendar began on 16 July 622AD with the Prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina to avoid an assassination plot and the persecution of the followers of the fledgling Islam. The Hijra calendar, being a lunar calendar, is 11 days shorter than the conventional solar calendar. That means Islamic months, including Ramadan, shift back an average of 11 days every year. This year Ramadan began on Friday 16 November and will last for 29 or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the moon.
Ramadan has another significance as it is the month in which the angel Gabriel is believed to have descended to reveal the first verses of the Quran to Muhammad.
After Ramadan comes Eid al-Fitr when Muslims celebrate the successful completion of the fast. Children get money gifts. In addition to the merry-making, well-to-do Muslims are obliged to make a financial donation.
This article appeared in the 29 November 2001 issue of The Bulletin.